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Frank Deford
September 30, 1974
The commissioners of major sports are men of rectitude and imperturbable mien. Now, in relaxed and occasionally irreverent conversation, the four bare a few of their secrets
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September 30, 1974

Heirs Of Judge Landis

The commissioners of major sports are men of rectitude and imperturbable mien. Now, in relaxed and occasionally irreverent conversation, the four bare a few of their secrets

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The offices of the National Basketball Association are cheek by jowl with Madison Square Garden, which more or less gave birth to the league. The NBA reception area is neo-jazzy, with six swivel chairs affixed in a circle on a wine-red doughnut rug, under the glare of a huge multiple-exposure action photograph. Visitors who wish to browse while waiting are able to thumb through bound copies of Basketball Weekly.

Down the hall is Commissioner Walter Kennedy's office. In size, only Rozelle's is larger; in terms of attractiveness, Kennedy's is much the most stylish. Good taste abounds—although a Man-of-the-Year plaque, a gushy Red Smith column and a panegyric by Senator Abraham Ribicoff from the Congressional Record form a little nest on one wall. Otherwise, each item blends in comfortable, friendly dignity.

"In the summer of '63, just before I took over," Commissioner Kennedy says, "I visited Haskell Cohen in the NBA office in the Empire State Building. I thought he had a pretty rotten office considering he was the publicity director for the league. I saw a portrait of an elderly gentleman and asked Haskell who that was. He said it was Maurice Podoloff's father. Maurice was still the commissioner, of course. I said, "Haskell, why in the world is Podoloff's father's picture in your office?"

"He said, 'Walter, this isn't my office. This is the commissioner's office.' I moved the NBA out of there right away. This is the third place we've been since. We had three people when I came in and have 16 now. The job has changed just as much as the office. This is not the job I took 11 years ago. I may be the last of my breed to achieve the level of commissioner in any sport.

"In fact, in the future, I think commissioners are going to be superseded by the courts of law. In the last four years 25 to 30% of my time has been spent on litigation, while in the beginning, weeks could go by without anything like that coming up.

"I was a man for my time. I came in and wanted to be the architect of the expansion program and wanted to develop a television program, and I've done both, so I'm ready to go. I've worked too hard too long to just turn it off, and I'm still too young to retire, but I'm going to retire from this position. I gave them two years to find my successor because, historically, you know, the NBA owners can't agree the sun is shining.

"If I could tell my successor one thing it would be: don't vacillate. Vacillate and you're dead. He'd better understand, too, that it's a totally thankless job, and maybe with a young man that would be disturbing day-in and day-out. Even a dog who bites and bristles wants some patting, but it's a rare day when I get any expression from an owner saying I did a good job. I accepted this long ago; I know it's not a personal thing. I've been very pleased with the owners" treatment of me. But a guy coming into this from a more normal business will be confused.

"These men, the owners, are not used to having someone tell them no. They've all been successes in other businesses, and they think they're right. I remember one time I hung up the phone, and it dawned on me that I had just said no to Jack Kent Cooke, and maybe it had been years since anyone had said no to Jack Kent Cooke. Oh, he was outraged.

"Your owners are different now. Some of them have an odd attitude, and the minute a single one fails to honor his constitutional pledges, then you're on the brink of disaster. Well, it's happening now, and that's not the kind of professional sports I was raised in, that I respected, the kind that led me into accepting this job. The other problems I can deal with. I'm good at persuasion, I have a listening ear, I negotiate well. But I can't deal with these new attitudes.

"I remember when the owners gave me unprecedented authority, which, incidentally, is not a lot of bull. I said, 'Gentlemen, I don't want to be God, I just want the authority to run an orderly organization.' Wayne Duddlesten of Houston, who was new at the time, came up afterward and said, 'Walter, you must be God here, or we'll lose the whole thing.' There's no way you can run a league like Landis did. No way. Still, you must have the total authority."

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